There was a hole in our hedge. Dark and foreboding, it called to my three-year-old, who giggling disappeared inside. The first time I waited, convinced I’d hear snapping branches, see rustling leaves, and then scratched and dirty, she’d emerge. But the leaves didn’t rustle, and the only sound was the cicadas’ call. So, I crawled in after her. Through the dark green tunnel, emerging not in my neighbor’s lush backyard but by a pockmarked desert highway.
My three-year-old had tried on a life. She was now a fifty-something waitress, working in a diner that rattled and shook with passing semis. She wore a crisp blue uniform and teased bottle-blonde hair, bustling over peeled linoleum floors, a soft pack of cigarettes tucked in one bra cup, her tips in a wad in the other. She smiled at customers as she handed them plastic cups of orange juice. But, the wrinkles round her mouth, the ones that deepened when she frowned, exposed what type of life this really was. A hard one cobbled together from scraps left by passers-through.
I grabbed her by the sleeve, smelled the smoke and bacon wafting off her hair as I hauled her back to the hedge. On this side, it looked like a rusty tin fence barely held together with wire. We crawled through the hole, into the green tunnel, toward the sound of cicadas and home. I watched her shrink, losing the bony hips, the cracking joints, regaining the downy skin of youth, the not-quite-lost baby fat as she became my three-year-old again.
At naptime, I rocked her, and she recounted that life as if it were a dream. Her three-year-old voice was soft and vulnerable, but beneath, I heard the hard edge of the older woman. A woman full of regrets turned to spite and pain. Regrets for the man she’d followed West, for the baby she’d lost, for decades wasted in that sun-bleached land, the memories fading as she drifted off.
In the garage, I found chicken wire and spare wood in the shed. While she slept, I dug and hammered and stapled until the hole was blocked. But in the morning, crumpled sheets framed her empty bed. She was gone again, and so was the barricade.
I followed through the hole and into her new life. A life in which she’d lost her job and then her home, ending up on the street, unsure where to go. All she owned was in a trash bag at her feet. I took her hand, led her home, and hoped it was the last time. Still, she raced for the hedge at every chance, always just beyond my grasp. Each new life held fresh pain. In one, her husband died. A freak car accident on a sunny day. Another was spent imprisoned. A further spent at war.
Then there was a life that put her in the hospital in her twenties. Tubes grew out of her hands and throat, attached to hanging bags and beeping machines. Her face gaunt and grey against the white sheets. I ripped her from the devices and roared at the frantic nurses flapping about. “She’s my daughter!” and then the roar broke, turned to sobs as I held my dying child to my chest. “I’m taking her home.” I carried her, tears dripping from my jaw, leaving dark circles on her hospital gown. In the tunnel, her body shrank in my arms, the plastic tubes and hollows in her cheeks disappearing.
That life drained her. She fell into a coma-like sleep while I stormed to the garage, to where the shears hung on pegboard, their blades brown and rusted from disuse. At the hedge, I hacked until the dark tunnel was bathed in sunlight. Until the ground was littered with leafy branches until my arms were a patchwork of bleeding scrapes and cuts. Until the bushes were no more than stumps. Until my daughter was safe from the hole and its infinite dangers.
It grew back that night. I heard the swelling wood groan in my dreams. So did my three-year-old. When she disappeared the next day, I knew where to look, my heart breaking as I crawled through the tunnel. This had to be it, the life I’d find her dead. The tunnel ended in a rock wall by the sea. I searched the beach, looking for her shattered body, but instead, I found a graceful young woman. My daughter, at maybe twenty, standing on a white cliff high above, her hair dancing in the wind as she watched an orange sun sink into the ocean. It was a good life, one I couldn’t pull her from. So, I left her, knowing she’d come home when ready.
There were other good lives. Lives where she owned her own business or eloped on a Croatian island. Lives where she traveled or taught, lives devoted to helping others. Lives that meant something. And then, peaking through a living room window, I saw a life where she was a mother, with her own three-year-old girl who could make her laugh and break her heart simultaneously. So, I left her, knowing she’d come home when ready. I returned to the hedge, crawled through the tunnel, and grabbed my shears to put away.
I still tried to stop her when she raced for the hole, or at least slow her down. Most days, she outran me. But there were some, a precious few, where I caught her up in my arms before she disappeared. Days I’d hold her to my chest, bury my cheek in her hair and smell her scent.
Not yet, baby girl. Stay small, stay mine, just a little bit longer.